In the early 20th century, Cambridge psychologist Frederic Bartlett radically reformulated the concept of memory. Until then the classical view, the earliest form of which could be traced back to Socrates, was that memories were stored in the brain like impressions in soft wax. The strength of a memory – how easily and accurately it could be recalled – depended on how firmly the original experience impressed upon the wax-like substrate.
Bartlett’s research involved telling participants stories, and then repeatedly asking them to recall these stories over weeks and months. He observed that his participants would not only recall details of the original stories, but often also add or change elements of the stories upon different visits to his lab. Bartlett’s observations convinced him that memory was not static, like a stamp in hot wax that hardens as the wax cools. Instead, he conceived of memory as an active process, and favored the term “remembering” to connote its dynamic quality.
In Bartlett’s own words: “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.”
It is therefore apt that Donald G. MacKay, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, titled his recent book “Remembering”. Beginning with his graduate work at MIT, MacKay has spent his 50+ year career studying the function and the frailty of memory through the lens of amnesia, focusing on one famous amnesic patient in particular: Henry Molaison, a.k.a. Patient H.M., or as MacKay refers to him, Henry.
Henry, who passed away in 2008, is famous among amnesic case studies because the surgical removal of much of his medial temporal lobe, including his hippocampus, tragically resulted in an acute loss of his ability to form new memories. His unique case history, the unintended result of an attempt to cure intractable epilepsy, provided researchers like MacKay with an unprecedented opportunity to study the role of the hippocampus in cognition.
“…the consolidation of memories into long-lasting synaptic firing patterns is a dynamic process that requires webs of neurons to repeat their patterns of firing, like dancers rehearsing a complicated choreographed routine.”
By carefully observing the quality of Henry’s memory, and comparing the results of Henry’s deficits to the behavior of healthy, age-matched controls, MacKay has contributed greatly to the modern theory of memory. MacKay’s work has helped build the contemporary view that at the neural level, memory formation is the strengthening of synaptic connections across large webs of neurons, and memory recall is the reactivation of these synaptic patterns. Crucially, the consolidation of memories into long-lasting synaptic firing patterns is a dynamic process that requires webs of neurons to repeat their patterns of firing, like dancers rehearsing a complicated choreographed routine.
Remembering is a chronicle of the work that led MacKay to this conception of memory. In his book, MacKay lays out a decades-spanning summary of his experiments that support the modern view of how memory works in the brain, and moreover, how the underlying mechanisms of memory are also connected to such diverse phenomena as language, creativity, and visual cognition.
MacKay’s illumination of active memory formation and recall, though it is fleshed out with neurobiological details and testable hypotheses, unmistakably hearkens back to Bartlett’s conception of “remembering.” One of the core insights that MacKay reveals by way of his experiments is that the hippocampus forms memories by coordinating far-reaching webs of neurons to activate repeatedly. By describing many elegant experiments, MacKay makes the case that the primary role of the hippocampus is this active formation, strengthening, and recall of information.
In his book, MacKay goes beyond just expositing the evidence for active memory processes, and puts the theory into practice. At the end of each chapter, MacKay provides quiz questions for actively strengthening knowledge acquired in the preceding pages, and more open-ended reflection questions to assist the reader in further strengthening their newly-forming synaptic patterns by building on new concepts and connecting them creatively with other knowledge. I found these exercises to be fun, not just didactic, and a clever way to illustrate some of the book’s core arguments.
“Remembering is lucid, lively, and immensely enjoyable.”
Remembering is lucid, lively, and immensely enjoyable. It’s packed with undiluted science – it depicts not just theories and experiments, but also intriguing details of the interpersonal struggles and hardships that are hidden from public view, yet are as much a part of the history of science as of any other human endeavor. As a young researcher, I found these anecdotes particularly illuminating.
Remembering is also surprisingly touching. MacKay’s relationship with Henry clearly left a deep emotional impression on him, and this bond provides rich color to the descriptions of the many experiments that Henry underwent. In the hands of another author, an accurate account of Henry’s profound deficits might come out cold and clinical. But while MacKay doesn’t gloss over Henry’s truly diminished experience, he remains fully conscientious of Henry’s dignity, his sense of purpose, and his humanity. Thus, “Remembering” is a fitting title for this moving scientific portrait of Henry, and the book a fitting eulogy for a famous patient who devoted his life to arduous experimentation with the promise that what he could provide would help others.
Remembering, by Donald G. MacKay
Published by Prometheus Books
— Written by Sean Noah. Illustrated by Michal Roessler & Jooyeun Lee.
Bartlett, Frederic C. 1932. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.